By Lim Kim Hui (a research fellow at the Institute of Occidental Studies, Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia.) CRITICAL thinking and market-driven skills have their place in education but one should not be at the expense of the other, writes LIM KIM HUI. THERE are many challenges ahead for academicians and educationists in Malaysia and the biggest that I foresee does not relate to problems of infrastructure as some have claimed. It is the lack of a thinking culture in Malaysian schools and campuses that we should worry about. Indeed, the death of dialectics and room for arguments; the surrender of culture to technology; the slavery of market-driven education; and the wholesale adoption of ISO certification in education are among some of the factors that will lead to "the end of academia".
Let us consider the basic etymological sense of the word "academia." Words such as "academy", "academic" and "academician" were derived from the name of the school which Plato (c.427-347 B.C.) had founded, which he called "Academy" - it was also the place where Aristotle had studied. In Plato's Academy, "Socratic questioning" was a teaching method - which was proposed by his teacher Socrates (469-399 B.C.) - as the method of inquiry; a way of seeking the truth through a series of questions and answers. However, this method of inquiry has been phased out in today's universities. There is hardly an environment of "Socratic questioning" which involves university students and their mentors or teachers. The current education system in Malaysia is too technocentric and exam oriented. Many Malaysian professors have voiced their concern about local university students, whom they think are passive and incapable of critical thinking. In 1996, the Far Eastern Economic Review quoted Professor Emeritus Datuk Khoo Kay Kim (he was a professor of history in the University of Malaya then) as feeling "sorry for the quietness of our students during tutorials".
"Students in Malaysian tertiary institutions have become so quiet that not many lecturers have the interest to conduct discussions. These students do not want to ask."
Khoo's students would ask him to speak slowly so that they could copy him word for word and spew out the same phrases during the final examination. Echoing similar sentiments, Professor Emeritus Datuk Osman Bakar, a former Deputy Vice-Chancellor (academic) at the University of Malaya, once said:
"The students are extending their spoon-fed learning at university. They depend too much on lecture notes."
Even so, are Malaysian teachers, lecturers and professors prepared to be questioned by their students? R. W. Burniske, author of the article The Shadow Play: How the Integration of Technology Annihilates Debate in Our Schools (1998), warns that the greatest threat to education is the death of dialectics. "Without dialectics, the pursuit of truth through argumentation, we offer students sterile information or pernicious propaganda. I have learned this lesson many times during the past 16 years while teaching at four different schools in as many countries and continents. I have witnessed the repressed discourse of schools in Egypt, Ecuador, Malaysia and the United States where traditional hierarchies and administrative hegemonies preserve the status quo," writes Burniske, who taught at an international school in Malaysia from 1992 to 1996. Students in the West have also been accused of being uncritical. John McPeck, a professor of education in Canada, in his article What is Learned in Informal Logic Course? (1991) observes that most people have a tendency to believe what they read simply because it is "in print". "
I was reminded of this tendency while advising my daughter, a sophomore at the University of Michigan, on a possible term paper topic. I suggested that she might challenge the alleged 'findings' in a paper on the heritability of IQ. She said to me: 'Daddy, are you crazy? I can't do that. Can't you read? It says that they prove their point right here on page 40'. As she pushed page 40 in front of my face, I thought to myself, 'Boy, does she have a long way to go!'." The parroting attitude in Malay society is well elaborated by M. Bakri Musa (1999) in his book The Malay Dilemma Revisited. He notes that learning in Malay society leaves no room for discussion or questioning. "It was not so much education as indoctrination." M. Bakri's opinion not only applies to the Malays but also the wider Malaysian society. The late renowned social critic and education analyst Neil Postman in many of his works (The End of Education: Redefining the Value of School; Technopoly: The Surrender of Culture to Technology) had alarmed us with his revelations: over-dependence on technology; numerical quantification; mechanistic solution; too much attention given to economic usefulness; too focused on fact, instead of narrative and epistemology and too much worship of "scientism" in all kinds of human affairs. Technology is apparent in almost every dimension of knowledge. Our society does not bother whether you have true knowledge. What people really care about is whether you know how to use the computer! Computer is only a tool but we tend to treat it as our objective. The recent trend in the demand for a market-driven education has reached an alarming state; it has undermined the importance of the humanities. Subjects such as philosophy, critical thinking, arts and music, rhetoric and literature appear to have no role in the curricula of local universities except to serve as academic ornamentation. This tendency had evolved from the prominence given to material values. The emergence of private tertiary institutions justifies the current market-driven orientation where skills-based subjects are more dominant than knowledge-based ones. It does not take an expert to conclude that there is no place for knowledge of "knowing that" (do you know that there's God?; that you are now reading this article?) but only knowledge of "knowing how" (do you know how to use a computer?; how to ride a horse?). By knowledge of "knowing that", I am generally referring to wisdom; knowledge (episteme) stands in contrast to opinion (doxa) whereas knowledge of "knowing how" is vocational or technical skills. It will be a pity if we try to equate knowledge with vocational or technical skills per se. Skills alone do not make a university. We can have all kinds of training colleges to cater for the needs of labour. We should not change a duration of study simply to satisfy the job market, that is, extending the length of study when there is no demand and vice versa. University education should teach students to appreciate knowledge and to inculcate in them creative and critical thinking skills. The obsession with ISO certification is also troubling. Granted, ISO has its worth but it should not be the only standard to measure quality. Students and academicians should not be treated as products. But what is the advantage of standardisation in education anyway? Standardisation will kill creativity and different types of intelligences; it will deter talented, creative and critical thinkers. Apply ISO certification with caution. For a university to become a renowned institution, it is not ISO certification that matters but the number of thinkers - those who can shape epistemology and academia - it produces. If we do not rectify this dilemma, then the end of academia will mean the death of universities. Paul Samuelson, in his book Scientific Elite, Nobel Laureates in the United States, said: "I can tell you how to get a Nobel Prize. One condition is have great teachers." (c) 2006 New Straits Times.
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